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Urban Brain Lab

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The Lab

The Urban Brain Lab, established by the Urban Brain Research Programme, is an experiment in resetting the relations between the sociological and neurobiological sciences. Initially funded by an ESRC ‘Transforming Social Science’ grant, the Lab investigates ‘urbanicity’ – the connections between the social and the neurological lives of urban citizens, with particular attention to mental health. The relationship between urban life and mental health has been a topic of longstanding interest in the social sciences – but is also now receiving particular attention within the neurobiological and psychiatric sciences, as investigators try to see whether the effects and process of city living can actually be measured at the level of the brain. The Urban Brain Lab is an attempt to put these two interests together. It asks: can urban sociologists and neuroscientists work together, in order to better map the complex interactions between the socio-political life of the city and the development of psychiatric problems? But as it pursues this question, the Lab is also trying to show that there may be room for a different kind of relationship between sociology and the biosciences. Aligning itself with what the microbiologists and physicist Carl Woese has called ‘a new biology for a new century,’ the Lab asks: what would it mean to also come up with ‘a new sociology for a new century’?

Some background

Sociology has always had ideas about the ‘nature’ of the human subject at its heart. So what are sociologists to make of recent research in the biosciences that has significantly advanced and changed our understanding of the kinds of creatures that human beings are? Such research has not always lived up to its promises. Still, we now know a great deal more than we used to about the biological possibilities through which human lives are shaped or constrained, and within which human subjects are made and re-made. In particular, the new brain sciences – neuroscience and neurogenetics – have proposed new ways to think about the emergence of mental health problems that can blunt and alter those lives, and radically re-arrange the experience of being an individual human subject. Yet, at the same time as this neurobiological architecture is being sketched out, evidence increasingly shows that it is fashioned by the body’s internal and external environments, by social relations, by culture, and by styles of living.

This takes us beyond the familiar idea that psychiatric diagnoses are ‘social constructs’ – and into a dynamic space in which social relations leave measurable biological and neurobiological traces, in the same moment that neurobiology modulates, enables and constrains social action and interaction. We are thus at a potentially transformative moment in the relationship between the social and biological sciences. The new possibilities are already being explored by some in social psychology. In the cultural sciences and humanities, neuroscientific discoveries have sometimes been uncritically embraced. Yet many responses from the social sciences – particularly sociology – still respond through the familiar discourse of critical suspicion. Of course we should not abandon our critical faculties. But at the Urban Brian Lab we want to argue that the moment has come to risk something beyond criticism – a ‘revitalized’ style of knowledge in the social sciences that will produce transformative sociological impacts on research within the life sciences, and on end users of that research.

The process

To investigate this basic idea, the Lab chose to work on one traditional area of sociological research in which a ‘revitalized’ sociology might be especially practical, thinkable and impactful: this is the relationship between urban life and mental health. We chose this topic because the relationship between urban life and mental health is a prominent area in neuroscience that wanders into an area of longstanding sociological expertise. But at the same time, there is already a subterranean relationship between biology, mental health and urban living in the sociological archive, which might serve as the grounding for the revitalized sociology we advocate. From the classical social theorist Georg Simmel on, there have been many reflections on ‘mental life in the metropolis’ in social theory, and many speculations about the relations between ‘external culture,’ ‘techniques of life’ and ‘bodily existence.’

So our questions are: how might an urban sociology bring the neurological lives of urban citizens back into the centre of its research programme? And how can sociology have an impact on the end-users in this exemplary area of biological and neuroscientific research? More generally, we also want to know: what would the research agenda for a ‘revitalized’ sociology look like? And how could it collaborate with the contemporary research agendas of the biological and neurobiological sciences? We are currently undertaking conceptual and historical work in order to reanimate re-animate sociology’s biological ghosts – clarifying the relations between sociological and biological styles of thought, identifying the reasons behind sociological resistance to a renewed relationship with the life sciences, and seeing what might be learned for the research agenda of a ‘revitalized’ sociology. In 2014, we will hold two intensive ‘re-vitalization’ workshops, with leading scholars, in order to generative a collaborative engagement between the sociology of urban life and the neuroscience of wellbeing in city living. The goal is for these workshops to lead directly to the development and piloting of an empirical research project for a revitalized sociology of the mental life of the metropolis

Further info:

Contact Nikolas Rose for more information.

Lab Members

Nikolas Rose



Nikolas Rose is Professor of Sociology and former Head of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London. He has published widely on the social and political history of the human sciences, on the genealogy of subjectivity, on the history of political thought in sociology, on law and criminology, and on changing rationalities and techniques of political power.

The Urban Brain Lab draws together two interest that Nikolas has developed in the last decade or so: the first is an interest in the conceptual, social and political dimensions of the contemporary life sciences and biomedicine. Through this work, Nikolas has paid particular attention to the new brain sciences, working to describe the development of a sophisticated ‘neuro’ complex, and its entanglement in many contemporary techniques for understanding, healing, governing and intervening-on human subjects.  The second is a commitment to understanding what a human science, and a social science, can and should look like in a biological age; in his recent work, Nikolas has focused especially on the history and the present of biological thought in sociology – asking, in particular, how we might more rigorously illuminate the contemporary landscape of crossings between sociological research and a more ‘emergent’ conception of human biology.


Des Fitzgerald

Dr Des Fitzgerald

Des Fitzgerald is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University.  His doctoral work, in the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London focused on attempts to understand the autism spectrum neurobiologically – describing the ways in which neuroscientific knowledge negotiates the space between the biological and diagnostic definitions of autism, the hopes and disappointments of high-tech bioscience, and the intellectual and affective labours of laboratory research.  In addition to his role in the Urban Brain Programme, his current research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, is about the use of psychological and neurobiological knowledge in architecture and city planning. He is interested in how we have come to think of cities as spaces that are sometimes psychologically bad for us, and in how planners and architects then try to re-engineer cities for the production of good mental health.

A frequent cross-disciplinary researcher, Des is interested in the politics and pragmatics of collaboration between the social and life sciences – and is committed to understanding what is intellectually and emotionally at stake in transdisciplinary research. Through the Urban Brain Lab, he is especially working to extend his interest in such moments of ‘entanglement,’ and his commitment to elaborating an intellectual programme that that can grasp, comprehend, and diffract, the deeply/simultaneously socio-logical and bio-logical intertwinements of human life and suffering.

Nick Manning

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Nick Manning is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London. He joined King’s in 2014 from the University of Nottingham, where he was Professor of Social Policy and Sociology, 1995-2014. He founded and directed the Institute of Mental Health at the University of Nottingham, 2006-2014. The institute is a major centre of international multidisciplinary research, service innovation, and teaching, with links to China, Japan, Europe and the USA. Author of 150+ publications, including 30 books, Nick’s research has been into the sociology of health and illness (especially mental health), global social change (including Russia and Eastern Europe, and China), and the application of social theory to the real world. He is the Principal Investigator on the M3- Shanghai research on Mental Health, Migration and the Metropolis


Jessie Li

Dr. Jie Li (Jessie) joined the department of Global Health and Social Medicine as a postdoctoral research associate to work on the project Mental Health, Migration, and the Chinese Mega-City. She is an urban geographer trained at Peking University in China (BA) and The University of Hong Kong (PhD). Her past research has been on urban planning and urban governance in China, particularly focusing on new town development in Shanghai from the perspective of urban entrepreneurialism, and the underlying governance structure and power relations. Her current research interests include the mental health of internal migrants in Shanghai and its relationships with the urban social and built environment.



Selected publications by lab members, exploring the core themes of the lab

Rose, N and Fitzgerald, D. (2022) The Urban Brain: Mental health in the vital city. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rose N., Birk R, Manning N. Towards Neuroecosociality: Mental Health in Adversity. Theory, Culture & Society, 2021. doi:10.1177/0263276420981614

Rose, N. (2013) ‘The human sciences in a biological age,’ Theory, Culture and Society, 30 (1): 3-34.

Rose, N. and Abi-Rached, J. (2013) ‘Neuro: the new brain sciences and the management of the mind’. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rose, N. (2000) ‘Governing Cities, Governing Citizens’ in E. Isin, ed. Democracy, Citizenship and the City: Rights to the Global City, pp. 95-109, Routledge, 2000.

Lie, J and Rose, N. (2017) ‘Urban social exclusion and mental health of China’s rural-urban migrants – a review and call for research’, Health and Place, 2017, in Press. With Jie (Jessie) Li.

Fitzgerald, D, Rose, N, and Singh, I. (2016) ‘Living well in the neuropolis’, The Sociological Review, 2016, DOI: 10.1002/2059-7932.12022.

Fitzgerald, D, Rose, N, and Singh, I. (2016) ‘Revitalizing sociology: urban life and mental illness between history and the present’, British Journal of Sociology, 2016, DOI: 10.1111/1468-4446.12188.

Manning, N. (2018). Sociology, biology and mechanisms in urban mental health. Social Theory & Health, 1-22.